‘It’s like a beached whale’: Efforts to dislodge ship stuck in Suez Canal may take weeks

Tugs work to shift Ever Given vessel as canal transit blocked in both directions

The Ever Given vessel ran aground diagonally across the Suez Canal on Tuesday after losing the ability to steer amid high winds and a dust storm, the Suez Canal Authority says. Photograph: Suez Canal/AFP via Getty

Rescuers have warned that the Suez Canal could remain blocked by a grounded giant container ship for “weeks”, raising fears of significant disruption to global trade.

As dredgers arrived on Thursday to help dig out and refloat the 220,000-tonne Ever Given after it became wedged across the canal during a sandstorm on Tuesday, Boskalis, a salvage company involved in the rescue, likened the operation to trying to free a beached whale.

"The more secure the ship is, the longer an operation will take," Peter Berdowski, chief executive of Boskalis, told the Netherlands' Nieuwsuur television programme. "It can take days to weeks. Bringing in all the equipment we need, that's not around the corner."

Bernhard Schulte Shipmanagement, the technical manager of the Ever Given, said Boskalis subsidiary Smit Salvage, had been appointed to help the rescue effort, but that an attempt to refloat the vessel in the morning had been unsuccessful. In addition to two dredgers already at the site, a specialised suction dredger has also now arrived, the company said, with a second attempt planned later on Thursday.


The 400m long Ever Given, operated by Taiwan-based Evergreen Marine, is one of the world’s largest container ships and is weighed down by thousands of tonnes of cargo, with its position suggesting its bow and stern are wedged on the shallower banks of the canal edge at the southern end.

While salvage experts are hopeful higher tides may help release the vessel if the dredgers can remove enough sand and soil, there are growing fears that refloating the Ever Given may prove more complex.

Offloading containers

The salvage companies may need to remove fuel from the ship’s tanks to help lighten the vessel and consider offloading some of its containers – an arduous and risky task given the relatively remote location, sheer height of the ship and lack of infrastructure on the ground.

Maersk, the world’s largest container shipping company, said nine of its ships and two partner vessels were held up by the blockage. Ranjith Raja, an analyst with financial services data firm Refinitiv, said more than 206 ships were waiting on either side of the canal to transit.

John Glen, an economist at the Chartered Institute of Procurement & Supply said a prolonged shutdown of the canal risked severe disruption to supply chains.

"If goods have to be rerouted via Africa due to the blockage this could add as much as 10 days to delivery times for UK businesses," Mr Glen said. "If this does happen it will inevitably lead to shortages of goods and inflationary price rises for consumers."

Oil prices have been supported by the blockage as long lines of tankers wait to pass. Brent crude, the international benchmark, has risen almost 5 per cent to about $63 a barrel since the canal closed.

Wood Mackenzie, an energy consultancy, said that while the largest impact was on container shipping – which made up about 50 per cent of the vessels transiting the canal in February – at least 16 laden crude oil and refined fuel tankers had been held up.

The Suez Canal Authority indicated that its own expectations for refloating the vessel had been extended.

It said it had let 13 vessels traverse the northern end of the canal on Wednesday, but that those vessels would now need to drop anchor, with all further navigation suspended.

Most large container liners have not yet decided whether to reroute vessels around the Cape of Good Hope but are working frantically to reorganise schedules should the vessel remain stuck.

Evergreen said in an emailed statement that there was no harm or damage to the crew, the ship and the cargo so far. It also denied reports that there had been a power outage aboard before the vessel ran aground. – Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2021